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As the attention span of the average American continues to wane, sound bytes—not campaign platforms—are more important than ever. So we shouldn’t be surprised that during Tuesday’s “Rock the Vote” debate among the Democratic presidential hopefuls, the media chose to zone in on the most sound-bytable portion of the political slug-fest: the antagonizing of current frontrunner Howard Dean for his recent contentious comment, “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” Sure, the candidates spoke about a lot more than just the former Vermont governor and his stance on the stars and bars, but their attacks were in the headlines, and actual issues buried below.
The fact that Dean has been using the same anecdote all year seemed to escape most media commentary—though, should it be of any interest to anyone, Dean, as much as it pains his opponents to admit, does not condone Confederate flags. As William Saletan of Slate.com pointed out, just as Dean has made symbolic references to the flag in numerous public statements, he “was saying that his party shouldn’t write off people who share its economic philosophy just because they don’t yet share its understanding of civil rights.”
But, though Dean quickly countered attacks by several Democratic debaters, the floodgates had been opened. Even as he spoke of the “102,000 kids in South Carolina right now with no health insurance,” and “white Southern working people voting Republican for 30 years [who’ve] got nothing to show for it,” Al Sharpton and John Edwards pressed the issue long enough to completely exaggerate an out-of-context quote and keep Dean on the defensive.
Of course, by now we expect our politicians to be blatant opportunists. What was particularly discouraging was that mediator Cooper Anderson allowed other candidates to castigate Dean, stealing time from substantive debate. Anderson opened the discourse with the ostensibly noble assertion that he wanted to “try to keep things real” and avoid producing meaningless sound bytes. Yet, with his encouragement, the first few minutes of debate became an all-out assault on Howard Dean.
Then the news stories the next day contained little more than a write-up of the Dean bashing. The nearly-1100-word New York Times article covering the debate was devoted almost entirely to describing Dean’s showdown—exceptions were made, of course, for those entirely pertinent questions of the candidates’ marijuana habits. A perusal of a Lexis-Nexis search of yesterday’s reports showed much of the same from every major newspaper that picked up the story.
The most annoying thing about this mess is what a silly controversy this is. Having grown up in Texas, it’s easy for me to empathize with Southern-stereotype frustration. From northeastern editorial pages that reference “Bonanza,” six-shooters and tumbleweed every time they write about Texas to Dean’s unfortunate flag comment, we have to put up with a lot. But even the best of us sometimes indulge in stereotypes—something to avoid, but something that often happens nonetheless. It is safe to assume that Dean’s reference to the Confederate flag was simply a case of poorly minced words, not latent bigotry.
This is not to say that Dean shouldn’t have been called on his comments. Of course he should have. But once he had answered his opponents, why couldn’t the media let the public decide what they think without a constant barrage of talking heads and slanted articles? Is the siren call of sound bytes really that irresistible?
—Morgan R. Grice is an editorial editor.
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